WASHINGTON - With Democrats preparing to select a new national chairman, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean said yesterday he would not seek the presidency again in 2008 if he got the top party job.
Dean, who ran unsuccessfully for this year's presidential nomination, has launched an aggressive, if unannounced, campaign for Democratic chairman. The competition for that post is likely to be the initial skirmish in a prolonged fight over the future of a party that has lost five of the past seven presidential elections.
At least nine potential contenders have surfaced for the party position, with Dean - who says he has not yet decided to formally compete for the job - by far the best-known. Others include former Michigan Gov. James J. Blanchard, former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, who was defeated for re-election last month, and Ron Kirk, a former mayor of Dallas.
Critics say Dean's image as an outspoken liberal could complicate what many regard as his party's most immediate task: demonstrating that it still is in touch with mainstream America. Perhaps a more immediate problem for Dean is allaying concerns of some members of the Democratic National Committee - who will elect the new chairman in February - that he would use the party job to launch another presidential run.
Following a speech at George Washington University, the former governor said that if he became party chairman, it would preclude another presidential try, at least in 2008.
In his speech, the first high-profile appearance of his latest quest, Dean said it would be a mistake for Democrats to tilt rightward in an attempt to attract more votes.
"We cannot win by being 'Republican lite.' We've tried it. It does not work," the 56-year-old Vermonter said, reprising a line from his presidential campaign. He added that the party's future is not a question of "whether we move to the left or to the right." Instead, it is an organizing challenge: rebuilding a 50-state base of support from the ground up, "not from the consultants down."
Though he never mentioned the name of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the man who defeated him for the nomination, Dean said Democrats cannot afford to pursue the presidency "by running an 18-state campaign. We cannot be a party that cedes a single state, a single district, a single precinct or even a single voter."
Dean said Democrats need to be the "responsibility" party across a range of fiscal, social and moral issues. He listed affordable health care, public education and balancing the federal budget, along with "real political reform" and assuring "accurate elections," as priorities the party could coalesce around.
He also pointed to himself as an example of what the party needs to accomplish, boasting that his political organization, which gave millions to candidates across the country after his presidential campaign collapsed, had helped Democrats win elections in the so-called red states that voted overwhelmingly for President Bush.
Dean's speech followed a series of private meetings that he held in Washington this week with some of his party's senior figures in Congress, including Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland.
This weekend, Dean and at least seven other contenders for the party chairmanship are scheduled to deliver in-person pitches to a gathering of state Democratic chairmen in Orlando, Fla.